Friday, September 11, 2009

Air to the Throne

There are very few people in this world that can be described as genuinely cool. Even when scanning the memory banks of big name stars and celebrities over the past decades, it’s tough to come up with unanimous decisions on who had “it”, that indescribable quality that makes someone cool. The list is small. James Dean had it. Frank Sinatra had it. Will Smith and Pierce Brosnon have it. No matter what those guys did, it never failed to drive the ladies wild and leave the rest of us men wistfully hoping to be like them for a fleeting second in our mundane lives. It’s a level that all aspire towards, but very few ever succeed at. And in the throes of that list is one Michael Jeffrey Jordan, a man definitely and undeniably on that level. There is no doubt that Michael Jordan is cool.

The greatest basketball player to ever grace the planet made the game seem easy. He could dominate at will, will his team to a win, and win over the heart of any person that watched him play. At the height of his game, he seemed to take the whole world by storm, as people across the globe became entranced by his desire and dominance over the sport of basketball. But even more than that, Jordan created a legend for himself. He wasn’t just the greatest, he was the coolest as well. He made sneakers cool. He made dunking cool. He made longer, baggier basketball shorts cool. Whatever it was that he did (drinking Gatorade, eating McDonalds, wearing Hanes), it always seemed to become the next big thing. The guy even made man-earrings cool. Yeah, I said it, man-earrings. Wham! and Billy Idol couldn’t do it, but Michael could. It’s just who he was. He made greatness look cool.

This weekend, Michael Jordan will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, an event as unexpected as the sun rising in the east or Lidsay Lohan making another crappy movie. As nice as the gesture is, putting Jordan in the Basketball Hall of Fame is like putting Halle Berry in the Official Hot Girls Club; it’s already a foregone conclusion. Nevertheless, MJ’s induction has given us a chance to look back on the career of arguably the greatest athlete of all-time. In doing so, one can really see what all the fuss is about.

Jordan’s statistics alone are enough to describe his greatness. His six NBA Championships, five MVP Awards, six Finals’ MVP Awards, 10 Scoring Titles, nine All-Defensive First Team Selections, and 14 All-Star Games makes it pretty obvious how incredible he was. But the accolades are barely half of the story. It was not so much Michael’s overall accomplishments that made him the best, but more his attitude and signature moments. The success is in his numbers, but the prominence is in his legacy.

Never has there been a competitor like Jordan. The man was more driven to succeed than anyone he played against, hungrier than anyone that ever picked up a ball. Failure didn’t seem to be an option for him; whatever it took to win, that’s what MJ would do. This persona is what dubbed him the most intense basketballer on the planet.

In only his second season in the league (’85-’86), Jordan helped the once putrid Chicago Bulls to the NBA Playoffs against the league juggernaut Boston Celtics. After scoring 49 points in Game 1 of the series, Jordan put up a playoff record 63 points in Game 2, in the Boston Garden, before the Bulls lost in double overtime. Despite the win, NBA and Celtics great Larry Bird was quoted after the game as saying, “That was God disguised as Michael Jordan.” And if you know anything about Larry Legend, then you know he doesn’t exactly hand out compliments like sticks of gum. In only a short time, the legend of Air Jordan had already begun.

The stories of Michael’s greatness and need to succeed go on and on. He once scored 69 points in a game. He shot a free throw with his eyes closed – during a real game, mind you – just because an opponent put him up to it. Oh, and he made it. Remember that thing about being cool…

He hit six three pointers in the FIRST HALF of a Finals game against the Blazers. He had a triple-double in an All-Star game. He was once heckled by a Utah fan for dunking on a smaller John Stockton, so he promptly came down the next possession and dunked on 7-footer Mel Turpin, after which he turned to the fan and asked, “Was he big enough?”

In Game 5 of the 1997 Finals against the Utah Jazz, Jordan played with the flu (yeah, the flu) and scored 38 points, leading his team to victory. I can barely drag myself from my bed to the toilet when I have the flu, and this man was dominating a game in the NBA Finals. If that doesn’t spell greatness, I don’t know what does.

Michael was the most clutch player the sport of basketball has ever seen. He made game-winning shots seem as routine to him as taking out the trash is to the rest of us. And in the six times which he led his team to the NBA Finals, he was never beaten. Not once. It was in these big moments that Michael excelled beyond belief. Whenever the game was on the line, Michael came shining through.

His will to win is also what made him such an intense and ferocious teammate. He wouldn’t accept failure, on his part or his team’s. And yet despite his perfectionist attitude, he was revered by everyone that he ever played with and against. The great coach Pat Riley even retired Michael’s #23 Chicago Bulls jersey…while Riley was coach of the Miami Heat! It was his drive to be the best and the respect Jordan had for the game that led to the respect of his peers. Regardless of how many times he had handed them defeat, they knew he had earned it, and they couldn’t resent him for that.

Jordan also gained the respect of the people. From Chicago to China, His Airness was universally loved, for the simple reasons that his effort and heart for success were unquestionable. Whether we witnessed him exalted in success, humbled in defeat, or humanized by off-the-court tribulations, we always saw him endure, always saw him strive to be better. It was nearly impossible not to worship him.

But what made Jordan so easy to like, so easy to admire, was the indisputable love he had for the game of basketball. When you hear the man talk about the sport, it’s almost like listening to a beaming parent talk about one of their kids. Michael has such deep passion and reverence for the game that it is not surprising he was so driven to succeed at it. It’s almost as if he felt he owed it to the game to be the best. And if that’s true, then his debt is more than repaid.

As a generation of people that were lucky enough to watch Michael play, we need to appreciate just how special it was to see; very rarely does greatness to the degree of Jordan’s come along. When it does, we need to relish in it for as long as we possibly can, because there is no telling when something like it will happen again. Watching Michael Jordan on the court is on the same level as watching Van Gogh paint a canvass or Mozart compose a symphony; that’s how well he mastered the game.

And while a Hall of Fame induction may seem only paltry for a man of Michael’s greatness, it will have to suffice for now. At the very least, it is just another good excuse to spend time reflecting on the career and legacy of the greatest of all time.

What exactly is that legacy, you ask? Well, when questioned at the Hall of Fame Ceremony’s press conference what imprint MJ has left on the game, someone simply commented, “There will never be another Michael Jordan.”

The “someone” who said it? The man himself – Michael Jeffrey Jordan.

And best of all, the statement had nothing to do with his ego. In fact, it wasn’t even remotely arrogant or vain.

It was just cool.

Thanks for reading

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